road-closed I spent the day birding around Arrowwood NWR while in North Dakota with my buddy Kate Fitzmeier.  And when I say "around," I literally mean around--it was completely flooded, note the the flooded road above.


Some roads were more flooded than others.  Check out the Slippery When Wet sign above--I'll say! I was sad we couldn't take this road, last year it led to the refuge's bison heard.  I was also sad for the refuge itself, just about every building experienced severe flooding.


Though many roads were closed, some like this road did make for a nice path for birding.  Kate stayed with the vehicle, she was on a mission for some badger.  We found some holes in the hills that looked very badger-worthy.


When we arrived, some pelicans and gulls were loafing on the road.  You might notice that some of the pelicans have little horns on the top of their beaks.  They get those during mating season and then after they mate, it comes off (So does that growth on the bill signify that they are horny?--insert bad joke grown here).  When I've been out to pelican rookeries for banding, we could sometimes find horns on ground that had been shed...they looked like old nasty toe nails.  As I walked down the road, the pelicans assessed my movement, "Is she really coming this way? Do we really need to move?'


Once out on the water, I felt as though I was getting disdainful looks, I had disturbed their valuable loafing time.


There were quite a few western grebes out on the water. Some were at the very beginnings of their courtship ritual.  We didn't see any actual dancing, but there was some head bobbing and pre-dancing stops going on.


Quite a few shorebirds were running around.  We saw a ruddy turnstone (not pictured above) and then several of the above peeps who didn't seem to care about people one bit.  I was confused by one of them and had to enlist the help of South Dakota shorebird guru Doug Buri.  I've gone on one of his shorebird workshops which are great and I highly recommend him, one year I need to do his sparrow workshops.  He told me long ago when I lamented about shorebird id that my problem was that I looked at shorebirds from too far away, when you have them close, it's easier to identify them and it certainly is true that it's easier to get an id if they are close.


This day, my challenge was that the peeps kept running towards me as I was trying to take a photo.  I kept having to back up to be able to focus them in the scope because the kept running towards me.  I took the above photo without the scope, at one point the sanderings were barely six feet from me.  I left my shorebird guide at home and was not having much luck deciding on an id of the larger peeps with internet searches, so I emailed Doug some photos.


Fortunately, I was able to get some size comparison shots.  The smaller peep on the right was so tiny, I was convinced it was a least sandpiper, but then noticed that the bill and the feet were the same color...that can't be a least sandpiper.  Doug confirmed it when I sent him the photo that it was a semi-palmated sandpiper.  Now, what could the larger bird on the left be?


The larger peep ended up being a sanderling and I needed Doug's help to figure that out.  He said the reason was that I was probably not used to seeing them in variable breeding plumage, but I think my confusion was habitat.  When I see sanderlings on the coast, they are fairly easy to id since they constantly run back and forth with the surf.  Not so much surf on the North Dakota prairie.  There is another way to tell them apart rom other shorebirds--they don't have a back toe, but trying to see that when they are darting around in grass, it a bit hard to see.

A Piece Of Rail

Warning!  The photos in this post might be gross for some for some readers.  It's about a piece of bird (most likely a rail) that I found on a barb wire fence. One of the things that really surprised me about this year's Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival was the amount of flooding that occurred around Jamestown and is still causing trouble for the area.  All we heard in the news was about the Fargo flooding but there was still much more flooding going on in central North Dakota. It's all the more impressive to me that organizers were able to get the festival going this year despite the flooding making lodging difficult (not to mention what the flooding did to the organizers' personal residences) and the economy causing more people to tighten their belts in regards to travel.

But the flooding made for some great birding.  For example, American bitterns were seen all over by many festival participants.  Zeiss rep Steve Ingraham got some fun video of an attempted mating ritual between two bitterns (check out the males white shoulder patch action going on).

I went out with my buddy Katie for some birding and I noticed some fluff on a barb wire fence.  We pulled over and walked/hopped over the water filled ditch to get a closer look to see what it was.  It was a piece of bird.


I tried to pull it off to get a bitter look, but it was really hooked into the barb.  The general shape and size read "rail" to me.  I wondered what happened.  There was a marsh across the road, had the rail flown across and hit the top line and got stuck and died?  Then perhaps some predator or scavenger came by and ate part of the bird?  Barb wires can kill low flying birds as I learned at the Leks, Treks and More festival when we did the marking for the lesser prairie chickens.


The feet, the tail tip, the brown striping, and the state the bird piece was found in have narrowed it down for me to either Virginia rail or sora.  However, I just can't decide on which.


At first, I thought I had it figured out with the feet, I know that sora's have green toes and what was left of this bird had black toes.  However, if you check Virginia rail toes, those are pink.  The decomposition could have caused the toes to turn black.

I tried to see if I could find any images of rail vents to see if that would help my id, but could not.  This one may have end with "back half of rail."

Random Links

bairds-sparrow I'm currently in North Dakota at the Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival giving workshops and leading trips.  Today was awesome, I did what I would call a slow and easy trip.  It's intent is to be a digiscoping workshop, give people a chance to try and take some photo of birds without feeling rushed like you do on regular field trips, but it was just such a joy to have a chance to sit and spend an hour with a great bird like a Baird's sparrow (above), really get to know this elusive sparrow.

And yes, my darling husband who is reading this from home, that bird is different from all the sparrows you see at the feeder.

Also, on Twitter today, someone was passing around to a link to a disturbing set of photos.  A bull frog eating a Eurasian tree sparrow.  If you would like to see the disturbing set, click here.  If you would like to avoid that image being burned into your brain, focus on the happy Baird's sparrow above.

Brown Birds At Potholes & Prairie Bird Festival.

This past Sunday was just about as perfect as a day can get for me. It started at 4:15am when Kate and I woke up to load up our van for the ride home at the end of the festival. At 5am, we met up with good friends Kim Risen and Bill of the Birds to have some time to just sit and enjoy some Sprague's pipits and Baird's sparrows. It was rounded out with some fun driving time with my buddy Kate and then finished with a spicy Thai meal and some quality time with Non Birding Bill. One of the first birds we saw in the wee hours of the dawn--a short-eared owl! And check it out, it's tiny, barely there tufties were erect. Not only did we see the owl...we got to see what it's named for. Take that, historic ornithologists who gave birds names for obscure parts barely seen in the field!

We stopped on some private ranch property (that allows birders to enjoy the sparrows) and headed out. You could hear the cows in the distance and one of our first birds was--

A chestnut-collared longspur just chillin' on the fence. There are brown birds, and then there are Brown Birds. Chestnut-collards take brown to a whole new beautiful level and they still have that bobolink thing going with their black chest. BNA describes them as prairie specialists: "Typical breeding habitat is arid, short to mixed grass prairie that has been recently grazed or mowed...this species avoids nesting in areas protected from grazing, instead preferring pastures and mowed areas such as airstrips, as well as grazed native prairie habitats."

The next bird we heard was a grasshopper sparrow (that's the hunch backed looking bird in the above photo). It's buzzy call was mixed with western meadowlark and about that time we heard Sprague's pipits overhead. I've linked to the songs, but if you have birdJam or any bird cds and are not familiar with these songs--look them up.

It wasn't long after that before we heard the sweet sound of the Baird's sparrow. And I had a video earlier, but here the lovely song of the Baird's sparrow yet again:

You can hear Canada geese and western meadowlarks singing in the background of that video.

There was also a pair of savannah sparrows nearby--above is one of them. The two would chase each other and periodically, the Baird's would get caught up in the chase as well. I don't think Baird's feel that threatened by savannah sparrows, but I have a feeling that their fighting was taking place a little too close to its nest.


The Baird's sparrow kept getting closer and close. Kim suggested that we all get as low to the ground as we could and see how close the Baird's would get to us. It came within ten feet. Here are the photos, it was almost too close to fit into the field of view of my scope.

There we were listening to one of the sweetest bird songs in North America, and even more sweet songs overhead and surrounding us--it seemed amost unreal to hear the Sprague's pipit's descending song right after the Baird's. The prairie was chilly, but gradually warming in the glow of sunrise, giving the wet ground a sweet and musky smell. You could barely hear traffic. Sharing the moment with people who truly appreciate the moment and prairie in the same way is what really made the morning, this is what birding is truly all about for me. As we were enjoying moment on the prairie with the Baird's we heard two vans pull up way back by the roadside where we parked. A quick scan in the scopes revealed the vans were full of people with floppy hats and khaki hats: birders. They unloaded.

kim eckert

  Kim Risen and I recognized one of the people as fellow Minnesota birder and Victor Emanuel tour leader Kim Eckert. I always get a kick out of the random meetings that can happen in another state. He was leading two vans for VENT and like us was there for the Baird's and the Sprague's pipits. We went over to say hello.

And as much as I would have liked to have sunk into the ground and just enjoy the sounds and smells for the rest of the day (despite the ticks) we had to head home. So, once again, after a cold, crappy, rainy, windy reception to the state, all is once again forgiven with a North Dakota dawn.

Friends And Bloggers At Potholes And Prairie Bird Festival

Ah, marbled godwits in the sun! Since the first two days of the festival were windy and rainy and generally not all that fun to bird in, I was worried people would go away with a wet feeling about the festival.

Prairie birding really is something everyone should experience at least once, but when it's windy and rainy, it's not so much fun. But on the sunny days, it's magical. Fortunately, the sun came out Friday, late afternoon, all day Saturday, and Sunday so people got to experience the gloriousness of North Dakota.

This was one of the many orchard orioles we saw in North Dakota. I carpooled to the Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival with my friend Kate Fitzmeier who works for Eagle Optics. I've said it before and I'll say it again: when you work bird festivals, you see the same vendors again and again, and it becomes this kind of strange nomadic birding family. I went to the festival working a Swarovski table so it worked out well to share expenses with Kate. One of the things I love about Kate besides her sense of humor is that she works hard, she birds hard...

...and when she sees a giant coot sculpture on the side of the road, she knows it's a perfect photo opportunity! There were so many friends at this festival and so many bird bloggers: Rondeau Ric, Somewhere in NJ, Nature Knitter, Bill of the Birds, Julie Zickefoose, and Birding Couple!

This was one of the many American avocets we saw on the prairie. I was excited to meet Birding Couple, it's one of the many blogs I enjoy reading when I have the time. I talked to them for a few minutes at one of the mixers and said that I would love to have dinner with them the next night...but stupidly did not exchange phone numbers. When Kate and I had a free couple of hours the next day, we heard a report of three whooping cranes nearby and set out to find them, completely missing the dinner hour. I worried about missing a meet up with the Birding Couple but figured one: they are birders, they would understand the need to chase a whooping crane report and 2. I still had another day of festival in which to hang out with them. We didn't get the whooping cranes and then it turned out that the Birding Couple ended up leaving early the following morning. I sent them a quick email that I was sorry to have missed them...although leaving out that I ditched them for whooping cranes. They sent an email back also expressing regret saying that they weren't around that afternoon because...they went looking for whooping cranes! Ah birders!

These are some sharp-tailed grouse that were lekking on the prairie. Behind the grouse, the coteau (or high point) almost looks like a tiny mountain range, but that's how cool a hill can look on the prairie. Speaking of lekking and arguing birds, I found myself the middle man between Zickefoose and Non Birding Bill. My husband wanted me to tell Julie that he loves her posts on saving "Mother Earth" but demanded a Chet Baker post. Julie told me to tell NBB that she would as soon as she got a carbon copy of his letter to his congressman regarding his outrage over mountaintop removal mining. NBB then sent back a witty quip about "who still uses carbon copies" and well, it just went downhill from there. Fortunately, Julie has finally posted a Baker post and my husband's addiction to the cutest and smartest Boston Terrier this side of the Internet is appeased...for the moment.

The Rainy Part of the Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival

First off: I have spent the morning updating my appearances on my Google Calendar page (all the way into March 2009) and have even included the next Birds and Beers on June 19 at Merlin's Rest. Birds and Beers is an informal gathering of birders of all abilities to connect and share birding stories and info. If you are remotely interested in birds, you're invited.

I love, love, love birding in North Dakota and love the Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival. But, every year there is always a day of cold rain and harsh winds that make even the most fervent bird enthusiast wonder, "What the heck am I doing with my life?"

But then you get the clear, crisp mornings at dawn on the prairie and all is forgiven and you realize that as a birder, this is what you live for. I'll blog that later, now it's time for the crap weather birding. One morning, I woke up at 4:15 am to the sound of heavy rain. I had to get ready for my 5am bus to Chase Lake NWR, so piled on the layers and rain coat and headed to the hotel lobby. It was silent, but when I turned the corner, I found this:

Field trip participants gathered round a muted tv desperately watching the weather channel and hoping against hope that the 90% chance of all day rain and strong winds predicted the night before was really going to stop at 5:05am. I laughed at the silence and intensity of the scene. Mental Note: Don't laugh at birders before 5am and before they have had a serious cup of coffee.

Alas, it rained for most of the day. At some points it was an "honest rain" as someone referred to it, others it was accompanied by unforgiving winds. And yet, at other times, it would stop while we were on the bus, and suddenly begin a light drizzle as soon as people started getting off the bus. Doh! I traveled to Potholes and Prairies with my friend Kate from Eagle Optics and we chose to sit in the back of the bus to not only help point out birds for people in back, but to try and provide some comic relief. I was so glad to not be an official field trip leader for this trip since that would mean getting off the bus at every stop to find the target. Bless poor, wet guides Kim Risen and Stacey Adolf-Whipp for doing that hard task. The big upside for Kate and I was that we got to hang with Rondeau Ric (although sans stache, but apparently it was not the source of his comic power, so he was still funny).

One morning, Kate and I had a couple of hours and we checked out Arrowwood National Wildlife Refuge on our own. We were excited to see the bison on the refuge. I love the above sign warning about what you should do around the bison that can roam on the road. Helpful things like "Do No Disturb or Chase" or "Tails Up! A Raised Tail is a Warning Sign to Stay Away!" You may think the sign is overkill, but after the dork wad I encountered at Antelope Island a couple of years ago in Utah, I'm not so sure.

We found the small herd on a hillside far enough away that we could safely digiscope them.

The baby bison were a trip. Some were frolicking, some were nursing. We saw no "tails up" unless you count the bison that were...evacuating their backside. However, our buddy, the Zeiss Rep, Steve Ingraham had a much closer encounter with the bison than we did--they completely blocked the road once he drove into their paddock. He made it out okay without any headbutting dents to his his rental, but I'm glad it was him and not us.

Speaking of Zeiss, I have to give them some props for their freebie at their booth--gummy binoculars--genius! Not quite as genius as the bag 'o gin from Bird Uganda Tours given away in Texas, but a mighty close second. They did taste really good. Especially the red ones.

One of the coolest things Kate and I found at Arrowwood was a large flock of cliff swallows swarming around a bridge. I'm sure they were nesting beneath it. This flock was already swirling over our heads. Then, for some reason, I bent down on the side of the bridge to see if I could see any of the nests and they skies doubled with more birds fleeing the nests on the bridge. It was pretty cool! We left soon after that in case any of the birds needed to get back to incubating or brooding chicks on this cool day. I did get a video to try and capture the experience:

Pipestem Creek

While in North Dakota, I had the good fortune to stay in a trailer converted into a cabin called the Bobolink on the property of Pipestem Creek. If you are planning a visit to North Dakota, I highly recommend staying here. The photos on their site show the cabin, it can sleep six if you are willing to share a double bed (I'm way too floppy in sleep and shouldn't inflict it on anyone apart from Non Birding Bill). Otherwise, it easily sleeps four--two double beds and two singles. It's cozy, clean, has a full kitchen and living room with bird, plant and mushroom books.

And I'm not sure why, but every time I took a shower, I thought of WildBird on the Fly.

And if you're wondering, yes there were bobolinks singing around the cabin. There is an incredible dawn chorus, which is worth the price of admission alone.

The loudest and earliest singer was the western kingbird. He started at about 4am.

Anyone who runs a wild bird specialty store is probably already familiar with Pipestem Creek. I was staying in a cabin on the property, but the company's main business is creating beautiful, edible seed wreaths.

All the parts of the wreaths come from nature (and almost all come from the farm or neighboring farms) and can be used as bird feeders. Most people hang them up for a bit indoors and then put them outside for the brds. Ann Hoffert, the owner has even appeared on Martha Stewart Living in November of 2002 demonstrating her mad stylin' wreath techniques.

Tours of the facility and production are available when you visit. I was so impressed when I went through. We carried some of these when I worked at the bird store and to see the process from creation to the shelf was pretty darned incredible. Ann also really loves the birds and is very involved in organizing and promoting the festival, she's as dedicated to preserving the birds and wildlife in her state as she is to her business. As a matter of fact, if you pick up a Birding Drives Dakota brochure, that's her in all the photos.

The birds around the property sure appreciated the business. This is a brown thrasher nest tucked into some honeysuckle right outside the widow of the assembly room.

The goldfinches covered the ground snarfing up all the spilled seed.

Killdeer nested along the gravel roadways, I found three pairs just along the gravel covered loading area in back.

And the birds loved the manure piles--look a that: he's king of the manure pile, master of all her surveys. When I was taking this photo, I was thinking, "Wow, what a great shot of a house sparrow--and it's on a manure pile--part of what made them so successful when establishing themselves in the 1850s!" Then I downloaded the photo and notice the stick up its vent (for non birders--that's the bird equivalent of the butt). Sigh, wish I had more time for Photoshop.

The manure pile was also covered with yellow-headed blackbirds. Here we go, a bird on a pile of poop, while in mid poop--you won't find a shot like that in Birder's World, but that's just how edgy we are at and that's the way we roll. (Oh dear, I'm referring to myself in the plural third person...I think that's my last cup of coffee this morning). Anyway, while the bird was in mid poop, I noticed the yellow feathers around the vent. And I thought to myself, "Do yellow-headed blackbirds have a yellow vent?"

And as if the bird were able to read my mind, he turned around and mooned me. Yes, yes he does have a yellow vent. Who knew? Not me. I wonder how this bird ended up with a sensible obvious name and didn't end up being called after a part that is not readily seen? Why didn't early bird scientists call this the yellow-vented blackbird? I did a quick check of BNA and did find that it is listed as a distinguishing characteristic: "yellow feathers ring the cloaca."

Other birds around Pipestem Creek include orchard oriole (nesting) and Baltimore oriole (nesting). It's a cool place, and I highly recommend staying there.

Alright, now I have to get dressed and go deal with the bees. Whoot!

Color in North Dakota

There appears to be a general lack of comments after the last entry. Non Birding Bill said the reasons was that all the birds were just brown, brown, brown, brown.

After all the brown birds in the previous entry, I wanted to post some of the colorful things we saw. This red-winged blackbird was in full on mating mode. A female was working her way through the cattails and he wanted her attention in the worst way.

Yellow-headed blackbirds were all over the place. I never get tired of these guys, they are just so cool. Their song isn't that musical, but I still enjoy that throaty screech.

Any farm that had a shelter belt of trees was just covered in birds like this yellow warbler. When trees are few and far between, a shelter belt is prime real estate.

Not all the color came in the form of birds. This sphinx moth was covered in a delicate blushy pink. Incidentally, this is the same type of moth that the eastern kingbird was trying to eat last week.

All the brown on many of the bird species serves an important purpose--they blend in very well with the surrounding vegetation. There's a nest here, can you see it?

Move the grasses and it there are two eggs. A mourning dove flushed from this spot as we were walking along. I've never seen one nest on the ground.

On Sunday, I did do some driving around before I hit the highway home. I was meandering down this gravel road following the map--passing some great birds. I kept following the map, came to an expected intersection and then noticed that the condition of the road seriously deteriorated...

According to the map, this goes on for at least another five miles. I decided to head south instead of continuing east.

Which I was so glad that I did! I came upon the uber colorful ruddy duck! I love these ducks and the boys were close to the road and displaying for a female lurking nearby. I think the male in the middle totally embodies this description by Arthur Cleveland Bent:

"He knows he is handsome as he glides smoothly along without a ripple, his saucy sprigtail held erect or even pointed forward till it nearly meets his upturned head; he seems to strut like a miniature turkey gobbler."

Bent continues, "His mate knows that he is handsome, too..."

"...he approaches her with his head stretched up to the full extent of his short neck and his eyes gleaming under two swollen protuberances above them like the eyes of a frog; with his chest puffed out like a pouter pigeon, he bows and nods, slapping his broad blue bill against his ruddy breast; its tip striking water and making a soft, clucking sound."

Hoo-wee. Is it me, or is it getting hot in here?

Anyway, as you can see, there were some very colorful birds in North Dakota.

Birding So Good, It Makes Ghosts Cry

Brace yourself for another brown bird bonanza.

And if you watch Hong Kong movies, you get that reference in the subject line. So, thinking back to my bird watching experience on the prairie, I keep humming the Shirley Bassey version of Where Do I Begin?: Where do I begin? To tell the story of how great the birds can be? The sweet old story that is out on the prairie, the simple truth about the birds that you can see. Where do I start?

At the start of this entry you can see our group spread out and that white speck in the distance is our motor coach. Behind me... can see miles of vast grassland. This was taken at Chase Lake National Wildlife Refuge--one of the many places we birded during the festival. I could have meandered around here for a full day quite easily. We saw so many great birds, we never really had time to see the infamous pelican colony that this refuge is known for. Julie Zickefoose was the keynote speaker and she added photos of sweeping vistas with bison roaming. She got a tad choked up when she tried to talk about the prairie and I think understood what she was saying. We have only remnants of the prairie left, when at one time it was so unbelievably vast and stretched for miles. How we as a species managed to reduce it to such a small amount that is so fragile it could easily disappear is equally unbelievable.

One of the main attractions of the Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival is the chance to see grassland sparrows--the most common one we found was the savanna sparrow (above). Some of the non birding blog readers are probably starting to roll their eyes asking "Seriously, brown birds?" But these aren't the brown birds (house sparrows) that crowd out other birds at the feeder. These are more shy, unassuming singers that if you could, would jump at the chance to attract them. Besides, that sparrow isn't all brown--note the yellow spots on the crown?

The second most common was the grasshopper sparrow. Even this little bird isn't all brown--note the hint of yellow on his shoulders? We have quite a few grasshopper and savanna sparrows where I live. Their songs can sound very similar, but a great way to learn them is to sit in some grasslands and listen to the two birds side by side, and you can tell them apart. The grasshopper sparrow definitely has a more buzzy sounding song. Interesting fact according to National Geographic Handheld Guide to Birds: grasshopper sparrows shake off the legs of grasshoppers before feeding them to their young.

This distant bird is a Le Conte's sparrow--a life bird that many festival attendees needed for their lists. These guys can be found in wet grasslands and meadows--they are incredibly secretive which makes them hard to see. The look very similar to Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows (below) and for me, the best way to tell them apart is by song--which this guy was doing with gusto.

We did get lots of looks at Nelson's sharp-tailed sparrows. We were on our way to look for a Le Conte's when this one popped up about ten feet away. One of the women on the field trip asked which one it was and before anyone could answer, it gave the sharp-tailed call loud and clear. It really is a pretty sparrow, its front is a delightful pumpkin orange color. Wouldn't it be cool if this pretty little brown bird showed up at your feeders--not going to happen, but would be cool nonetheless.

The big target sparrow was the Baird's sparrow. These guys are tricky. They don't return to the exact same spot to nest every year. If there is a slight change, they move one--sometimes several miles away. This is probably an adaptation from long ago when the prairie was ruled by wild buffalo grazing and wild fires. Now, they are affected by change, but don't seem to appreciate the human recreation of prairie, so their options for nesting habitat get more and more limited every year. Our guides on the trip had a Baird's staked out and we could hear it in the distance almost as soon as we got off the bus. When we found it far away through our scopes in dawn's early light--we felt very fortunate.

Then we got closer and here is a photo of the bird from behind.

And then we got ever closer and were able to change position to get the Baird's sparrow in perfect light. Last year I heard and saw Baird's sparrow but not a look like this--I couldn't believe our fortune and that the bird simply ignored us.

Then we got even closer--a digiscoper's paradise! We were able to take so many photos of the bird, and it wouldn't leave. It seemed wrong somehow to just walk away from it, but this bird was not budging from its singing perch. Two packed bus loads of birders got to see the Baird's and anyone with digiscoping or photography equipment got incredible shots. The song was so clear and one of my favorite songs, I decided to up the ante by digivideoing the Baird's sparrow:

Isn't that just one of the sweetest bird songs on the planet? I remember working at the bird store and listening to the Stokes' bird call cds and every time the Baird's sparrow song played, I would think to myself, "What a pretty song! What must it be like to hear that out in the wild?" The other target bird was a Sprague's pipit, which was singing and displaying nearby. Some bird festival attendees wished the Baird's sparrow would quiet down so they could hear the pipit a little better. Last year, I had the exact opposite problem, I wished the pipits would be quieter so I could hear the Baird's! Ah, life.

Here we have a herd of birders nestled in the grass, enjoying lunch in the glorious sun after a great morning of birding. Seeing all those life birds makes a body hungry.

When I'm on the prairie, I myself get a misty-eyed. To the group, I say that it's allergies (and sometimes it is) but all the different bird songs, insect buzzing, and wind combine to a chorus that would bring Mozart to his knees--it's so beautiful and grasps a strong hold on every single one of your senses, you are forced to enjoy it. I can tell you how wonderful everything is, and link to individual songs of birds, but until you hear it and see it for yourself all at one time, it's just too hard to communicate. It's kind of like tasting vanilla extract and thinking how kinda unimpressive that is. However, when you combine vanilla extract with some sugar, flour, eggs, butter, and chocolate chips--you get one heck of a cookie.

Whatever you do in life, find a way to visit a true prairie with your family at least once--it's a true North American treasure.

A Quick Burrowing Owl

Let The North Dakota Blog Updates Begin!

I have so many updates, where do I begin? I think I'll just be blogging all day long today and tomorrow. I must admit, the intense rain and cold winds on Thursday really put a damper (har har) on my excitement to go birding in North Dakota, but the rest of my time outdoors at the Potholes and Prairie Bird Festival was nothing short of magical. Everyone should experience dawn on a prairie at least once in their lives.

Aren't we such a colorful group? That's Julie Zickefoose, Bill Thompson, Paul Baicich, and me having a great time on the prairie. I love being able to see my friends face to face as opposed to email, but really all of us were so busy giving programs, leading trips, meeting people, and answering questions that we barely had time to say hello to each other. I wanted to head home early Sunday, I really missed Non Birding Bill but I tagged along for part of a Julie and Bill's field trip to spend a little time with them and to see...

a burrowing owl lurking in the grass. This particular owl was standing guard at a hole in a colony of Richardson's ground squirrels. The owners of the property have seen two owls, and chances were good the female was inside incubating some eggs. They also said they had a second nest on the land but it was not easy to access. The owls probably took over an already excavated hole, although burrowing owls are capable of digging a burrow by kicking backward with their feet and digging with their bills--but why dig when an excavating mammal already did the work? Burrowing owls eat mostly insects and invertebrates and are not a primary threat to the ground squirrel colony. However, burrowing owls will eat small mammals so a tiny, young ground squirrel would be fair game.

When our group had arrived at the colony looking for the owl, we could see a low flying buteo flying away with a Richardson's ground squirrel dangling from its talons. Not sure which one it was, it was flying directly towards the sun and could have been a red-tailed hawk or Swainson's hawk.

Out beyond the burrow with the owls, we could see some very old box cars. The family that owned the property said that the dilapidated box cars were home to Clark Gable's grandparents and father--and Clark probably visited. As it was time for the rest of the group to press on, the family was kind enough to give me permission to explore them, warning that there really wasn't much left inside--but how could I resist?

They weren't lying. There was nothing left inside. There were no faded and weathered Clark Gable dressed as Rhett Butler glossies with an autograph reading, "Nana and Grampy, thanks for the memories! Love, Lil' Clarkie" tacked to the walls. The floors inside were covered with several layers of mud and cow pies. Any walls that remained standing were nesting sites for barn swallows. I wondered about the family times that were spent there, did they notice the birds singing outside? How did they survive the winter in a couple of box cars before the invention of Gortex? What made them choose this site to spend their lives? What were the families hopes? fears? What were evenings like at the end of the day? As I was marveling at this, I started to hear an incredibly high pitched "seep". It was akin to the sound of night migrants calling to each other. What bird could that have been?

A quick scan with the binos revealed barking Richardson's ground squirrels. Apparently, I was grounds for alarm. I love the shot that I digiscoped above. The ground squirrel's mouth is open so wide for such a high pitched little bark. Eventually, the squirrels settled down and started their feeding and chasing despite the human lumbering around them.

As I came around to the front of the box cars, I was surprised and delighted to see a burrowing owl in flight! I've never seen one fly before, only roosting outside a burrow or perched on top of sign posts. What a cute little bouncy flight--an it even hovered like a kestrel! I think I surprised it as I came around the front of the cars, it stopped mid hover and took off well over to my right and stood on the ground. You can't see it in the photo, but the bird is near some stones and with the naked eye, the bird looked like a smaller stone. I apologized to the owl for interrupting the hunt and headed to my car and home and NBB.